Humboldt’s Lost Coast is a wild, isolated part of the county. Its few roads wind steeply, and keep casual traffic out. The attention of most inhabitants is engaged in projects close to home. It was a rare visitation from the outside world therefore when last week Pana Rotana, business developer for Shell Corporation’s Wind Energy division, arrived in Petrolia to discuss Shell’s proposal for erecting 25 windmills on Bear River Ridge.
Rotana’s manner of addressing the somewhat suspicious Mattolians was neutral. When asked how the proposal was being received elsewhere, he enumerated four groups :1) approving, as an alternative energy project, and a source of tax revenues 2) favorable, though demanding that environmental impacts be seriously addressed, 3) opposed because poorly informed and 4) opposed because it hates Big Oil.
Shell has written off this fourth group. As strategy this is understandable. Shell WindEnergy should appear as a separate entity, or at least a new, clean face of Shell. However, before we dismiss the disastrous history of Shell’s activities around the globe as irrelevant to this presumably cleaner project, we need to consider, first, whether we owe any solidarity to the people whose lives have been destroyed by Shell, and then, what sort of reference this history provides for a prospective neighbor.
Shell is an amalgamation of 1,700 corporations operating in 70 countries around the world owned by Royal Dutch Shell. The words of this Canadian
Chippewa provide a sample of the kind of reference ordinary people on five continents might give:
”Shell’s (tar sands, in this case) operations are disrupting our traditional way of life, destroying our air, water, land and medicinal plants and the birds, fish and animals we depend on to sustain our people”.
Nigeria provides the worst exhibit. Humboldt County heard personal testimony in 1997 when Dr. Owen Saro-Wiwa spoke at Humboldt State University on a boycott campaign. His famous brother Ken had just been hanged by the government under pressure from Shell. Owen described the ruined lives of 31 million people when, at Shell’s bidding, government troops suppressed nonviolent demonstrations, whole villages were annihilated and leaders like Ken were executed in spite of international outcry .
Nothing has changed since then, and the protests have become violent. A recent spill of near- Exxon Valdez magnitude has fueled the outrage.
The Supreme Court addressed a lawsuit against Shell last month, brought by the widow of one of the hanged men, and based on a 1789 statute which allows suits arising from acts of piracy. Shell asserts that as a corporation it is immune. Justice Kennedy, speaking of the human rights abuses of which Shell is accused, alluded to the original purpose of the statute, asking if the pirate Blackbeard had said he was merely an officer of “Pirates, Inc.,” would the Court have told him to pick up his gold and go home?
Other arguments referred to the corporate identity of Shell, and a recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which grants to corporations all the rights of individuals. As Paul Weiss stated in the New York Times, “a more startling paradox is difficult to imagine”: in their previous decision the court allowed corporations the rights of people and to make unlimited contributions which “undermine the integrity of elected officials across the nation” but here, not as people “in order to immunize them from prosecution in the most grievous human rights violations.”
The move to boycott Shell is still alive: it is one of the Occupy movement’s issues. Which brings us back to the Petrolia presentation. Is it ethical to ignore Shell’s despicable reputation as a world citizen? Shouldn’t we demand reparations be made to, for example, Niger’s people before we have any dealings with Shell?
We suffered with Maxxam for 25 years. It destroyed our most valuable industry. Why can’t we develop our own wind, in our own way as many European towns do?
As a neighbor, Shell’s references are not good. It cannot be trusted, probably not held liable. For all we know it may have designs on the oil and gas which we suspect is here ( the Post Office at Bear River used to be nicknamed “Gas Jet.”)
Shell is already tempting the obdurate Ferndale by donating $27,000 to the high school, and an email is circulating in the Mattole, saying we should ask Shell for sidewalks and a wildlife/raptor rescue station.
We may find ourselves tilting with windmills, like Don Quixote, and with equal success. Just because it’s alternative energy doesn’t mean it’s good.
Ellen Taylor is a resident of Petrolia.